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‘BlackBridge engages heavily in the value chain to help our partners offer complete solutions’

John Ahlrichs
John Ahlrichs
Vice President for International Sales
BlackBridge, Germany

Recently rebranded, BlackBridge (formerly RapidEye) is looking to expand its presence in all aspects of the geospatial industry. John Ahlrichs, Vice President for International Sales, talks to Geospatial World about BlackBridge’s next generation satellites and how BlackBridge is making a difference in the earth observation market.

What was the strategy behind the rebranding? How will it affect your future business?

Having the same name for our satellite constellation and our company was limiting our growth capacity. We wanted to create a cohesive, overarching brand that could include our geomatics and data warehousing-networks businesses as well. BlackBridge is present in a number of verticals in the geospatial industry and we wanted to match that with a broader brand. Thus far, the rebranding has been a very good move.

What are the new developments happening at BlackBridge, and what are your expansion plans?

BlackBridge continues to develop around geospatial solutions. Currently, we are leveraging the capabilities of our data centre and networks infrastructure to tailor geospatial solutions for our customers. This will allow them to easily set up storage, management, and processing of their data. What differentiates us from other cloud-based solutions providers is the fact that we have architected our solutions specifically for the geospatial industry at a very competitive price point. This service also allows the end users new techniques to use and share their data, which is often a requirement before a second dataset can be purchased. We are also developing new avenues to make our 5 billion km2 archive available to customers who need change detection solutions.

The other big new development happening at BlackBridge is RapidEye+, our next generation of satellites to ensure data continuity to our customers, as well as enhanced capabilities, such as increased collection capacity, more spectral bands, and higher spatial resolution.

Tell us about new satellites that are coming up?

We have just unveiled our plans for our next generation of satellites, RapidEye+. The new system will provide our customers and partners with complete data continuity well beyond the life of our current satellites. RapidEye+ will have a higher collection capacity, more spectral bands, and finer spatial resolution. This will open the door to a whole range of new opportunities and applications. In the coming weeks we’ll give more details about this.

What makes BlackBridge different from the rest of the market?

BlackBridge holds a unique position in the earth observation market. We are a privately held company, which allows us to be flexible and make quick decisions. We are a young, innovative, and dynamic company, able to spot opportunities and take advantage of gaps in the market. BlackBridge is also the only company that runs a constellation of identical earth observation satellites focused on wide area mapping and imaging, offering same-season coverage of large areas within weeks for more accurate land cover and vegetation analysis. We also take advantage of quick imaging campaigns to capture cloud-free images in generally cloudy areas. We heavily support our partners with proactive imaging campaigns to provide an archive of risk-free data available when funding for a program is finally secured.

BlackBridge claims to be focused on providing end-to-end solutions for the geospatial value chain. How is this happening?

Taking a look at our infrastructure, our capacity for providing end-to-end solutions is clear. We own a constellation of satellites, manage our download station directly, and possess all of the capabilities to process, archive, and distribute our data. Additionally, we offer a complete cloud-based environment to host, discover, process, and deliver imagery and products. Our goal is to make image analysis easy for our customers. For the continued support of our customers, we have partnerships extending all the way down the value chain. For example, in February of this year, BlackBridge acquired 50% of one of our distributors, Santiago & Cintra Consultoria (SCC), to expand our market in Brazil. BlackBridge engages heavily in the value chain to help our partners offer complete solutions.

We now offer Monitoring Programs, which allow our partners and customers to develop solutions for agriculture and related markets that require access to many small areas of data scattered within very large agricultural regions. They are using these data to create information products for precision agriculture, crop insurance, food security, and other applications. These programs are breaking old industry paradigms of selling data by the scene or square kilometre, which often made imagery unaffordable for this type of application. Here, our customers pay a fee to access the entire monitoring program or a part of it, and use the imagery collected over the duration of the program, divided into several acquisition windows, regardless of the location of their areas of interest. We cover agricultural areas several times during the growing season, and it is up to the customer to select the necessary imagery. We are continuing to work on the extension of these monitoring programs into other verticals and applications.

Is there an increased sense of interest with customers towards satellite imagery?

There is still a large sector of the market that has yet to discover uses for imagery to solve problems. As we continue to create solutions suited to more verticals and industries, we’ve got a huge opportunity to tap. Many developing countries are still building the skills necessary to leverage satellite imagery, and as they continue to develop, this trend will gain traction.

Is it increasing the competition in the space?

Everyone has a niche and an area of expertise. Competition is surely there, as it should be, but BlackBridge has positioned itself as a leader with a combination of excellent products, infrastructure, world-class expertise, and a network of partners across the world.

Do you agree nano and micro satellites are changing the Earth observation industry?

The concept of nano- and microsatellites is an interesting one. In my opinion, the use of these smaller satellites will not significantly affect the earth observation industry. Nanosats are best suited to those consumers who do not have rigorous quality requirements, whereas for the rest of the market, significant testing has yet to be done to determine their usefulness in the highly technical remote sensing market. As for pricing, nanosats are intended to cut costs associated with production and launch. However, I do not see the business model for these types of satellites being significantly different than that of their larger counterparts. The traditional costs of running, maintenance, and downlinking data from these nanosats will still remain.

How do you see UAVs as a disruptive media?

In my opinion, UAVs will not be a disruptive technology, but rather a complement to what is currently available in the market. Over the past few years, the improvement and growth of the UAV industry has been promising. The field is growing, and in the years to come the technology and understanding will only continue to improve, creating new markets and expanding existing ones.

Video for the Earth observation industry was never a format, but now we see it emerging. What are your views on that?

This is still in an incipient stage. Video will allow for new types of observations and lead to new business models. It will expand the earth observation market as people continue to find new applications for this emerging technology. That’s what we need to do as an industry — help the market grow by presenting new opportunities, applications and business models. That said, at the moment the limitations of this technology are evident, since the commercial space-borne system capable of collecting video can only shoot 90-second clips, and always at fixed times. This obviously poses a number of limitations for potential applications for this type of technology.

The market is moving towards analytics. Do you agree?

Absolutely. We definitely see customer trends moving away from the desire to own the imagery and moving toward the idea of “just give me the answer.” We see this trend affecting our partners as well. This idea is one of the main drivers for developing our cloud-based solutions to leverage our imagery, our infrastructure, and our platform to deliver easy to use information, rather than just imagery.

How is BlackBridge supporting analytics?

Our goal is to make accessing and processing imagery easier for our partners and customers. They do the majority of the analysis, as almost all of our business is local. To support them, we are constantly running background imaging programs to ensure our satellites are imaging at full capacity and that we have a recent archive for areas of interest. This helps maintain an image stack for change detection; for example, in the case that we need a recent “before” image when there is a disaster to assess. We are in the process of completing upgrades to our GCP database, so that all data we orthorectify will have an RMSE of at least 15 meters and generally better than 10 meters. This creates many new opportunities for change detection and cartographic updates.

Is speed becoming a necessary quality for satellite imagery and analytic services?

Speed is not such an issue with 5-meter imagery, though I must say that our system is very responsive, as the revisit period for the RapidEye constellation is one day. Very often our satellites are the first ones collecting imagery over areas affected by a natural disaster. However, our primary focus is on agricultural and environmental concerns, where a 24-hour benchmark is considered standard. We can easily deliver within those constraints. Having said that, we are now in the process of launching a price competitive Direct Downlink and Virtual Ground Terminal solution with our partner MDA. This will meet the requirements of customers who need quick access to the imagery collected or national control of their RapidEye imagery.

How do you see the market behaving in coming times?

The Earth Observation market is growing at an exciting pace. Imagery sales will become more difficult in some areas, as nations like China seek to replace foreign satellites with domestic ones. Despite this, other customers are becoming accustomed to receiving analytics products and services rather than imagery alone. This is fuelling market growth. The trend toward cloud-based automation and analysis is also accelerating market expansion. Together, these are the types of changes that keep our business interesting and the markets moving forward.